TOPS Knives has been on the lead edge of affordable tactical knives since their inception in 1998.
Not choosing to play the exotic steel game, founder and president Mike Fuller instead made knives of 1095 tool steel in order to give serious, budget-minded troops easy access to extremely well designed knives that would otherwise be out of reach on soldier's pay.
When Mike retired in 2015 longtime employee and Fuller's right-hand man Leo Espinoza took the reins. Leo's story reads like the encyclopedic definition of the American dream. You couldn't write it any better.
He was born and raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho — where TOPS is located — and started working for the company shortly after it was formed to make spending money while attending high school.
"I started at the very bottom cleaning the garage and the bathrooms," Leo informs us.
"After about a year I decided it wasn't just a job and that I wanted to do more by making knives. I started staying after work teaching myself how to grind. sharpen, make handles and the like."
"Anyone who has done this knows it takes time and a lot of trial and error. Eventually, I learned how to do it well enough they gave me a chance and I helped make knives for the nextseveral years."
From this point Leo launched a determined quest to know everything about the manufacturing process, from grinding to finishing new TOPS knives.
"While going through the learning process I also started to design knives. The Blue Otter was the first knife I designed for TOPS and it's still in the company catalog after all these years," Espinoza informs.
"This was around 2006. After that, I continued to acquire more responsibilities. For a time I was in charge of taking the pictures and doing all of the graphics work for the company. Then I was promoted to the Shop Manager position."
In 2010 Mike named Leo Espinoza the vice president of TOPS Knives. "Mike was my mentor and he was preparing me to eventually become the company president, which happened in 2015," notes Leo.
"My job didn't change much when I took over running TOPS Knives. Mike had been grooming me to run the show, so a lot of the decisions over the last several years were mine."
"I'm in charge of overseeing everything that happens, from the final decision on projects to the direction that TOPS Knives is taking, will take in the future and everything in between."
"But I still love getting my hands dirty making and designing knives, solving problems, and growing the TOPS Knives company."
That folks, is the American dream!
A Spectrum Of Steel TOPS Knives' bread and butter from its inception was tactical fixed-blade knives designed mainly for our troops here and abroad.
Many of their early models are still in production and new ones are constantly joining the line-up of new TOPS knives.
TOPS' General Manager and Marketing Director Craig Powell is also an Idaho native, growing up in the shadows of the Tetons.
A familiar face to TOPS Knives fans, Powell also worked his way up the ladder, starting with fitting sheaths and answering customer service calls.
"This gave me hands-on experience with pretty much every model we make and allowed me to get my finger on the pulse of what our customers are saying and experiencing," Craig tells us.
"From there, I started working more on the marketing side of things. Eventually I became the main contact for magazines, designers and anything related to marketing."
"Recently I was promoted to General Manager and am now in charge of all that I was doing plus some additional responsibilities."
We asked Craig to fill us in on several of TOPS' new tactical offerings. "The C.U.T. 4.0 is one of our hottest new mid-sized fixed- blades."
"It was designed by Joshua Swanagon as a self-defense knife that could still be useful as a camp knife or EDC knife. He combined elements from karambit designs with a traditional drop-point blade and created a versatile tool in the process."
Though not a true karambit, that finger hole in the base is bound to - make fans of the fighting style lick their chops. The new Hazen Legion 6.0 model is pure fighter with wicked looks to match.
"The Hazen Legion is a collaboration between custom knifemaker Mark Hazen and TOPS Knives," says Craig. "Mark wanted to be able to produce his original Legion model in larger quantities and sought us out because he knew we could do it justice while still making the knife in the USA."
"It was the first TOPS Knives release of 2016 and has been very popular. Another new addition to our tactical line is the Team Jackal Survivor, a fierce tactical knife designed specifically for operators."
"It's got a tip made for stabbing, a blade that excels at field work, and a handle designed to accommodate either task comfortably and securely."
Though TOPS Knives built the company name on tactical knives, Fuller was an avid outdoorsman and always kept a nice stable of hunting and sporting knives in the corral.
When the Bushcraft outdoor movement took root here domestically TOPS Knives introduced the Scandinavian-inspired B.O.B. (Brothers of Bushcraft) Fieldcraft knife, which was an instant success.
The Bushcraft genre is now a staple in the TOPS Knives stable with more models to follow. One of their newest additions is the Brakimo fixed-blade.
"Designed to be the main knife of the Bushcraft Global Expedition experience," Powell relates, "the Brakimo is Joe Flowers' (one of the founders of Bushcraft Global) newest TOPS Knives design."
"It has our famous modified Scandi grind which is fantastic for wood working and for some harder tasks that a traditional Scandi can't handle."
A couple of other popular additions to the new TOPS Knives outdoors line are the Tex Creek 69 and Quick Skin models.
The Tex Creek is Leo's favorite hunting knife design; a great all around drop-point style fixed-blade built to tackle a wide range of field chores large and small.
The Quick Skin, also an Espinoza design, is a deep-bellied fixer made specifically for skinning and gutting game — with plenty of jimping for superb purchase.
Leo Espinoza has watched TOPS Knives grow from a 2-bay rented garage to the massive 30,000 square-foot building which houses their factory and office facilities today — all the while perfecting his knifemaking, production and managerial skills. It has certainly paid off.
According to the enthusiatic new leader, "Our mission has always been to create the highest quality, rugged, unique, overbuilt and functional tools for service members and outdoorsmen of all kinds through our superior manufacturing, finishing processes, and genuine field operator testing."
That's been TOPS' key to success, and though the name may have changed at the top, the slice goes on!